When it comes to pairing wine with food, I am an advocate of the “whatever works for you” school of thought. Even so, my personal palate is sometimes boggled by what others pick to pair with their dishes. I’m even beginning to think that there is a “house palate” when it comes to pairing wine with food based on regional taste styles and experiences.
For instance, here in Pinot-centric Portland, we have our preferred pairings: Pinot and salmon is probably the most classic. We like the quiet elegance of a fruity Pinot noir against the sweet flesh of salmon. Both ingredients have a restrained quality about their flavors, and the complement of a Pinot with cherry/berry fruit, nice acid balance, and a touch of earthiness, with the soft succulence of the fish goes extremely well together. We also often like Pinot with pork, or even poultry such as turkey, because neither the flavors of the dish nor the wine ever overpower each other.
But those would not, it seems, be the preferred pairings for our more Bordeaux-centric neighbors in Washington.
Recently I was proudly served a considered food and wine paring by a top Seattle chef: plank grilled fresh salmon and Pepper Bridge Cabernet sauvignon. Now don’t misunderstand me: I love the Pepper Bridge Cab. I have written glowingly about its merits and the fact that I think it gets overshadowed by some other Washington cult Cab producers. It is a great wine.
But for me . . . not a great match with salmon.
To my palate, the wine completely destroyed the salmon. Rich, substantial, and concentrated black berry fruit flavors accented by dried herbs and spice offered nothing but weight and force against the delicate flavors of the salmon. There was no balance in the pairing: the wine overwhelmed, hands down, and the salmon disappeared in my mouth, subsumed by the power of the wine. All I could taste was a mushy texture in my mouth and lots and lots of rich dark fruit.
Of course, they don’t make much Pinot noir in Washington. They do make a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, and they do have a lot of salmon. No doubt the Cab/salmon concept is as natural to them as salmon and Pinot would be to Oregonians. It obviously worked great for the Seattle chef, and no doubt also for all those people who drink a lot of Cabernet sauvignon!
I thought of this today when I saw a notice on the Washington State University Viticulture & Enology website about “Perfect Pairings.” One of the perfect pairings they pointed to was: Beef Wellington and Pinot noir.
This pairing would work in exactly the opposite way: the food would completely swamp the wine. Apparently the “spicy” quality of a Pinot noir was considered the right match for Beef Wellington. Well . . . okay . . . except for me, I don’t think of Pinot noir as particularly spicy, and I don’t think the heavy beefy richness of a tenderloin, combined with duxelles, pate of foie gras (if done properly), and a flaky crust to be a persuasive match for the usually lighter fruitiness and textural delicacy of a Pinot noir. The mushrooms and perhaps foie are on the right track, but add in everything else and for me, the Pinot would get completely lost.
I’d probably match a spicy Syrah with Beef Wellington. You’d get a big sumptuous fruit hit, definite pepper and spice, plus probably a nice bite of tannic structure, all to balance out the beefy, earthy richness of the Wellington. Now that, to me, would be a perfect pairing!
But that's just me, and my palate is no more right, or wrong, than the folks at WSU or the Seattle chef.
It boils down to what we've become accustomed to. Still, I do wonder if regional peculiarities of food and wine consumption work their way into our personal perceptions of what are optimum pairings?